David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Tidal wave of dirt that could swamp election

The political fallout from the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics book keeps on coming. David Fisher looks at key developments so far

Author of Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager.
Author of Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager.

It often comes in like a wave, the release of a book from Nicky Hager, breaking on the shores of public awareness awash with assertions that are too much to take in at once.

Allegation, denial, allegation, rebuttal, confusion over who is right or what the book was really about anyway.

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Then the tide goes out and public awareness goes with it.

"This book has struck a chord in New Zealand more than anything I've written," says Hager, author of Dirty Politics. Other books have been criticised and lauded, but they come and then they go, leaving the public often puzzled about what happened.

Not this time. It's 10 days since this wave crashed in and there's no sign of it receding.

Dirty Politics is a tidal wave of a book, a best-seller. Based on years of conversations hacked from the computer of the country's most aggressive and angry blogger, it claimed to expose an ugly, hidden side to our politics which was deeply rooted in John Key's National Government.

The book appeared to reveal networks which stretched from Whale Oil's Cameron Slater to the Prime Minister's office, to the office of Justice Minister Judith Collins, and into the pockets of public relations supremos.

It painted a picture of a Government determined to win at any cost, using Slater as a weapon in the battle to dominate any opposition.

"It seems to have struck a political chord," Hager says. "I think that there has a been a long narrative of a friendly Government riding high that has stood behind the friendly image of John Key." Against that, he describes a public which has accepted decisions - asset sales, for example - it hasn't entirely agreed with because of the overall appeal of "Brand Key".

"There's been a disconnect between people's experience and the high support for this confident, laid-back, in-charge kind of guy who's running the party."

The media, which spends a lot of time interacting with those in power, has recognised the powerful spin machines that have thwarted them time and again, he says. "As soon as they saw this it rang true with their own experiences."

What chaos. One of National's strongest assets and Slater's friend, Collins, has disappeared since Dirty Politics appeared. She has publicly endorsed his blog, and Hager has now exposed the depths to which it will sink. Worse for Collins, it emerged she gave Slater personal details of a public servant which he then used to abuse online, inciting death threats.


Judith Collins, John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Herald political columnist John Armstrong wrote an opinion piece comparing the actions described in Dirty Politics to the Watergate scandal. In this modern day incarnation, Slater entered the Labour Party computer system, bypassing an encrypted database to find the back-up was open, once he recompiled its disparate parts.

According to the book, Slater was joined in this venture by the Prime Minister's press secretary Jason Ede, who appears to have been using a dynamic IP address in a bid to hide the identity of his computer each time he accessed the system. The book claims that together they netted membership lists, emails, donor names and credit card numbers, which Slater would use to abuse and harass Labour.

But it's not just the individual acts. And it's not even that Slater would make jokes about dead babies on his site and crow "feral" at Judd Hall, who "did the world a favour" when he died in the back seat of a car driven by a drunk driver.

There is an awful totality, which appears to have also motivated the hacker who broke into the site after the "feral" comment in January.

"I heard a rumour about someone who had some stuff," says Hager, whose books on spies have generated contacts in IT circles. "He already had a plan in his mind to set up a Twitter account and splash it all out there."

Hager says he spent weeks talking the person into letting him see the material and use it to build the narrative which became Dirty Politics. The hacker, says Hager, gave him everything. "I've seen everything. I'm 100 per cent sure." The hacker then expressed a desire to keep back some material for himself. "We kind of negotiated how much," he says. "I said 'can I have all the political stuff'." Hager got what he asked for and so, the book was written.

When it launched, the "cynicism and unpleasantness" was there for all to see - but the hacker still had a role to play.

He emerged on Monday - just as National's denials were becoming strident - with a pledge to release source information publicly. In his only public comment so far, he said: "This isn't politically motivated. I'm not paid to do this. I'm not associated with [Internet Party founder] Kim Dotcom in any way. I want to take down this corrupt network and make sure it can't be put back together. My next batch of leaks will prove this."

Since then, Prime Minister John Key's campaign trail has turned into a game of political Russian roulette. With anything he denies, there is the threat of the hacker publishing proof through his WhaleDump Twitter handle.

Now, every answer is a land mine. Key rubbished Hager's claims his press secretary Ede was involved in accessing private information on the Labour Party website, WhaleDump put online information which appeared to be proof. He backed Collins over accusations she had helped victimise (to the point of inciting death threats) an innocent public servant. WhaleDump showed she sent her blogging friend the person's name, job title and phone number.

Hager: "I'd rather it didn't look like someone was playing politics too much." He says he wouldn't want to see content drip-fed up to election day. "When you act anonymously like that person is, it's only natural people will question your motives and wonder who you are."

So, with WhaleDump in the background, it's a confident Rodney MP Mark Mitchell who rejects the entire 10 pages in the book that claim his selection in 2011 was a rort driven by Slater and his co-conspirator, Simon Lusk.

"The information that's in there has a completely distorted picture that is not true."

He says he will take action after the election - "all options are on the table" including a defamation case. "This Nicky Hager has done a complete hatchet job on me. My conscience is clear [on selection]. Simon and Cameron had their own thoughts on that."

Dirty Politics claims Lusk and Slater manipulated the selection of Mitchell in Rodney by abusing and deriding his opponents through the Whale Oil blog. Hager claims Mitchell would not have won otherwise. Mitchell says: "The delegates are not influenced by anyone other than the candidate."

Ask Mitchell is Slater if a mate, and he hedges. It's a big question to ask a National MP about Slater given the last week - the blogger is the most unwelcome, least-liked person to have ever been a National Party member, says one source. Mitchell says they've known each other since they were kids and come from old National Party families. He speaks of returning to New Zealand from working abroad: "One of the things I wanted to do was stay true to my own set of personal values and that means not having people tell me who I can and can't talk to. I don't want to have people say who you can and can't associate with."

One person Mitchell chooses not to associate with is Dotcom, who he met at a barbecue last year. He testified at the trial of John Banks how the tycoon threatened Key and the National Government.

"I feel New Zealand has never been put in a position where it has had to face an ordeal like Kim Dotcom. There is a big risk of our own House of Representatives being captured by him."

He speaks of the break-in to his Wellington office, the later burglary of his Rodney electorate office and the hacking.

"I chose to treat these things as random events. Some of the information we've seen come out recently has made me re-evaluate that." There have been text messages published in which Dotcom talks about targeting Whale Oil - the tycoon says it has nothing to do with recent events but points to an upcoming defamation action against the blogger.

At the Whale Oil blog, moderator Travis Poulson says he's "skimmed" through most of the book and wonders if Hager was "given everything or just been given what would be most negative towards National".

"I haven't read any of his other material," he says. "Some of it seems a bit extreme, a bit 'conspiracy theorist'. I'm not interested in that kind of thing."

And when it comes to extradition - a court-governed process signed off by the Justice Minister of the day - Poulson claims it will be rorted by Dotcom changing the government. He says this view, which has been denied repeatedly by Dotcom, is held among those who visit the Whale Oil blog.

Poulson, who volunteers hours every evening monitoring the comment section on Whale Oil, talks of seeing the blog referred to as a "cesspit". In his view, its a functioning community of people who enjoy each other's online company - and one which has cleaned up its act this year.

A great deal more effort goes into removing some of the more offensive comments. Death threats and swearing are now banned, although a quick glance through the comments shows racism still seems fine - discussion on tikanga brings comments about compensation claims from Maori for toilet paper and soap, and a reference to welfare.

One moderator, Pete Belt, told the community last week: "Lots of things we do here will be considered unethical by people. Ethical isn't something we are worried about. Only legal."

It's a community which is now under threat. People's secrets are exposed, he says. Emails to the blog contain "personal information".

"That's a gross invasion of privacy. There would be quite a few dozen, if not hundreds, of people who would be quite concerned."

Computer security is also a concern. Poulson suspects his computer has been under attack twice since Hager's book came out. "I can't see what attacking me would bring to any motive. Anything political Cam would keep to himself.

"I'm just a volunteer for the blog."

He looks back over the week which has gone and says, "It feels like a long time. It's going to to be a shit-storm for days and weeks to come."

But it should not return to how it was, says Hager. "[Slater] will keep going. But if he's not totally discredited, then something is seriously wrong."

- NZ Herald

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